When BYU defensive lineman John Nelson was growing up in Boise, Idaho, and Salem, Utah, he earned the nickname “Nightmare” because of the way he struck fear into the hearts of his fellow Little League football players.

Besides, when your name is John Nelson, you need a nickname. How else are you going to stand out?

Nelson, now a 6-foot-4, 275-pound sophomore starter on BYU’s defensive line, is starting to stand out for his play on the field, just like when he was younger.

“We keep in touch a lot. We talk about film, do stuff together in the offseason. We are always working out. He is always the hardest worker on the field, and in the defensive line room. I have learned a lot from him about what it takes to be a good defensive lineman.” — BYU DL John Nelson on his cousin, Porter Gustin of the Miami Dolphins

He was so much bigger than everyone else when he was in the fifth and sixth grade that it was not uncommon to see opponents almost comically bounce off him when they attempted to run him over or block him, his father said.

“John just stood like a brick wall, and guys would hit him and just bounce away,” Dave Nelson said. “I was always like, man, this kid can handle contact.”

Actually, he can handle much more than that.

Nelson has started at defensive end in six of 4-3 BYU’s seven games this season and leads the team with four tackles-for-loss, including sacks against Baylor and Wyoming. Last year, he was one of just 26 players on BYU’s team to play in every game, and had 1.5 sacks against Virginia and a key pass breakup in the 35-31 win at USC.

Nelson and the Cougars’ embattled defense are vowing improvement this week after giving up 52 points and 644 yards to Arkansas in a discouraging 52-35 loss last Saturday at LaVell Edwards Stadium. The Cougars depart for Virginia on Thursday and will face 6-1 Liberty at sold-out 25,000-seat Williams Stadium (1:30 p.m. MDT, ESPNU) on Saturday in Lynchburg.

“John has done a great job, mostly in his preparation in the offseason to get where he is now,” coach Kalani Sitake said a few weeks ago. “We’re really excited about the way John has developed into a really good player. He has a great work ethic.”

Teammates say that work ethic has made Nelson the strongest player on the team, a label he disputes and downplays.

“I am definitely not the strongest, but I am up there,” he said. “I try my best. Obviously the weight room is a big part of what we do. Half of football is being strong in the weight room.”

Nelson said he has squatted 550 pounds and power-cleaned more than 300 pounds.

“John Nelson, he keeps getting better each week,” defensive ends coach Preston Hadley said after the 26-20 win over Baylor that featured a sack by Nelson. “He made a lot of plays, had multiple flashes in the game where he was playing at a really high level.”

Plenty of athletic role models

Nelson credits his cousin, former prep All-American linebacker Porter Gustin, and Anton Palepoi of Pro-Tech Trenches, for helping him develop into the physical specimen he is now.

Gustin played for USC from 2015-18 and is currently on the Miami Dolphins’ practice squad. He played for the Cleveland Browns from 2019-21 and totaled 47 tackles and a sack and had two fumble recoveries.

“We keep in touch a lot,” Nelson said. “We talk about film, do stuff together in the offseason. We are always working out. He is always the hardest worker on the field, and in the defensive line room. I have learned a lot from him about what it takes to be a good defensive lineman.”

Another highly accomplished athlete he emulates is also at BYU. Women’s basketball star Lauren Gustin is his cousin, and Porter Gustin’s sister. Lauren Gustin led the WCC and was No. 8 nationally in rebounding average (11.6) last season.

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“She is an animal,” Nelson said. “She takes it very seriously and is going to be the hardest worker on the court, and I always try to do that with my career. It is just what we do.”

Yes, Nelson is surrounded by outstanding athletes. Size, strength and athleticism are in his DNA. 

His father, Dave Nelson, played basketball for Boise State in 1988-89 and his grandfather played football for the Broncos. His mother, Amberli Gustin, played basketball for BYU from 1989-94.

“Yeah, we have been to a lot of games,” Dave Nelson said.

John Nelson’s aunt, Scarlett Overly (Porter and Lauren’s mom), played basketball at BYU from 1987-89 and also played at Wyoming. His uncle, John Gustin (Porter and Lauren’s father), was a quarterback for Wyoming.

Growing up, John Nelson had all kinds of different allegiances, including BYU, but the Cougars weren’t his clearcut choice.

“My mom played at BYU, so we followed them,” he said. “Then my cousin went to USC and so I kinda cheered for USC a little bit. And then my dad played at Boise State, and we lived in Boise for awhile, so it was kinda mixed. I didn’t see myself for sure going to BYU, but I definitely didn’t resist it, either.”

Getting to BYU

John Nelson was “kind of an under-the-radar recruit” at Salem Hills, according to his father, because he mostly played offensive line his first few years in high school, and a little bit of defensive line. The summer before his junior year he earned most outstanding offensive lineman at Boise State’s camp, and had offers from the Broncos and Utah State at the time.

The summer before his senior year, however, he decided to focus solely on playing defensive line. BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki saw Nelson at a camp at Weber State that summer and offered him on the spot as a defensive lineman.

“John was so excited to get that offer,” Dave Nelson said. “BYU was all-in for John. … So the colleges were catching on that he was going to have great size and was really strong as a defensive line prospect.”

Nelson went to the 2019 game in which Baylor Romney led BYU to a 28-25 upset win over No. 14 Boise State in the rain at LaVell Edwards Stadium, and a week later made an unofficial visit to BYU’s campus during the Cougars’ off week.

“John came in and tried on the royal blue uniform, and he was all-in for the Cougars,” Dave Nelson said. “Because BYU was so committed to John and had a plan for him, he was like, ‘This is it. I want to go here.’”

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It was a nice get for the Cougars, because he had become a three-star recruit (ESPN and 247sports.com) and was a Deseret News 5A All-State first-team selection. He tallied 50 tackles, 12 sacks, six tackles for loss and returned a fumble for a touchdown his senior season at Salem Hills.

NFL on the mind

John Nelson was part of BYU’s 2020 recruiting class, and was planning to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints before the pandemic hit. Having watched a lot of friends either return home, get quarantined in their apartments or get reassigned to another mission, he decided to stay home and focus on football. He eventually grayshirted the 2020 season in which Zach Wilson led the Cougars to a 10-1 record.

In the summer of 2020, he worked out with Porter Gustin and did the Cleveland Browns’ virtual training camp with his cousin as if he were a member of the Browns.

BYU coach Kalani Sitake greets defensive lineman John Nelson (94) as he comes off the field against Oregon Sept. 17, 2022, in Eugene, Ore. Says Sitake of Nelson: “We’re really excited about the way John has developed into a really good player. He has a great work ethic.” | Andy Nelson, Associated Press

“He has been exposed to finding this extra gear, to finding out how good he can become,” Dave Nelson said. “He takes it very serious. He is his own biggest critic. He has a high expectation of how he wants to play. He is very dedicated to it.”

An older brother, James Nelson, led the state in scoring with a 25.0 average in basketball for Salem Hills in 2018 and played for Northwest Nazarene and Dixie State (now Utah Tech). Two years older than John, James also recognized the potential in his younger brother and pushed him to succeed.

“James just challenged him to get into the weight room, challenged him to not settle for anything less and actually go out and see how good you can get, to find that extra gear,” Dave Nelson said.

Younger brothers Jackson Nelson — a senior quarterback at Salem Hills — and Jedediah “Jedi” Nelson, a sophomore who is expected to inherit Jackson’s role the next two years, are now following in their brother and cousins’ footsteps.

One cousin has already made it to the NFL. Will John Nelson get there, too? 

“That’s the goal,” he said. “I’ve definitely got an eye on that. I am already here at BYU, which was one goal. I have worked my way into this position, which I am really grateful for. But it is not enough just to play. I want to be the best player on the field, offense or defense.

“I am always looking to do that. That’s the expectation I have for myself.”

After all, “Nightmare” has big dreams.


Cougars on the air

BYU (4-3) at Liberty (6-1)

Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MDT

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Williams Stadium

Lynchburg, Virginia

TV: ESPNU

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